Welcome to the third installment of Food Questions, where I investigate food-related subjects to satisfy my curiosity. Check out my previous posts on Catherine de’Medici and the history of arroz con gandules and Jollof rice.
Biting into a mature cheddar that crumbles into jagged shards, giving way to the irresistable firm cheese. Tiny white pinpoints tucked between the large firm curds tightly crunch, releasing that characteristic sharp flavor.
The tastebuds deep on both sides of my tongue tingle and light up, making my mouth water. A throb of pleasure radiates from my gums to the base of my spine. The shudder of furry pleasure is nothing short of orgasmic.
Nestle a morsel of that cheese into the pillowy crumb of a fresh baguette, and that rich texture with the tight crispness of the brown crust… This is one of my very favorite bites of food. The definition of deliciousness.
That sharp cheddar cheese is so damn good because it tastes salty and umami.
Umami is the mysterious fifth flavor, after salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. I remember hearing the news in 2001 that American researchers confirmed that we DO indeed have the ability to taste a fifth flavor–something the Japanese had first established nearly 100 years earlier. I was a teenage girl with food eternally on the mind, and was curious about this flavor. Through my clunky understanding of it, I got the impression that it was a just a “deeper” version of salty.
Today’s food question dives into the specifics of umami.
What exactly is umami?
Dipping crispy-fried potato wedges into tomato ketchup
Shaving a soft mound of Parmesan cheese over steaming, screamingly hot freshly drained pasta
Dabbing (or bathing, for some) your sushi in a dish of soy sauce
Adding salty anchovy fillets that dissolve into your rich puttanesca sauce
Using dashi stock (either bought powdered, or simmered from bonito flakes and kombu kelp) to give your miso soup the backbone of its heartiness and warmth
…If you’ve ever enjoyed any of these taste sensations, you have tasted umami. It is the umami flavor that gives these dishes their depth and richness of flavor, and what makes them so luscious and satisfying.
A dish without umami is one that makes you tilt your head and think “There’s something missing.”
Umami is a flavor that is not recognizable enough to know which ingredients contain it, but one that is sorely missed when absent.
The discovery of this flavor is credited to Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda after realizing the seaweed in his miso soup was the key ingredient to its tastiness.
Ikeda called this flavor “umami;””umai” is yummy/tasty; adding the noun ending “-mi” makes “umami” loosely translate to yumminess/tastiness.
This flavor is a bit slippery to describe, but it’s often called meaty, brothy, savory, and rich. Ingredients with umami are special add-ins that create an explosion of flavor.
It’s found in aged foods, like cured meats, fermented products, and ripe (often stinky) cheese. It’s also present in fresh foods like ripe tomatoes, milk, mushrooms, and even breast milk!
It’s the amino acid glutamate that’s responsible for this yumminess.
Umami can be created through using umami-rich ingredients, or by using heat to brown your food. This is called the Maillard reaction: when an ingredient is heated under the right conditions, carbohydrate molecules react with amino acids, which break down and produce a browning effect, giving birth to complex, meaty aromas. Imagine the difference in flavor between a sad, floppy boiled chicken breast and a juicy piece of meat carved from a crisp, roasted whole chicken.
Here are some more umami-rich ingredients, grouped into various cuisines sorted by country:
Glutamate came to be isolated from proteins in wheat gluten, distilling it into its purest form, called “aji no moto”–the stuff of flavor. It quickly came into commercial production in Japan and was sold as a flavor enhancer, much like salt and sugar.
Nowadays it’s mass-produced by growing bacteria that excrete the substance into liquid, from which MSG powder is produced.
Some of you may be skeptical about using MSG powder in your food. But as for the purported negative side effects of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (sweats, headaches, upset tummy, increased heart rate), research doesn’t seem to back it up.
That said, I never use it. While cooking, I have a distaste for relying too much on salt, sugar, or MSG–it feels like I’m cheating, grabbing an easy fix to make up for flavor I failed to cultivate during the cooking process.
I’m more in favor of coaxing in umami flavor on my own terms: browning meat bones, using mushrooms, roasting tomatoes, grating Parmesan into my risotto, using fish sauce in my seaweed soup…
So, the next time you’re scratching your head in the kitchen, thinking your dish isn’t quite right, resist the urge to grab for salt. If you think it needs a li’l extra somethin’, pump up the umami.
Energy, swirling and bubbling, slishing and sloshing, through our bodies. We touch something, which sends a reverberation that radiates outward, to continue its neverending run.
Tense energy, swirling, sloshing, through my body. My words touch everyone around me: cold, negative. Eyes and bodies shift, as does something inside me. My inner discomfort has overflowed, and I’ve transferred it to those around me.
Fear, tension, nerves, stress. There’s always something.
Life has showed me that there will always be something. Swirling inside my brain, there will always be some dark shadow that threatens to stands between me and my entourage. I can’t accept that.
I sit down to write. Difficult and uncomfortable at first, it soon feels like I’m scratching a deep internal itch. A soul itch. (Sitch?) The sloshing, watery shadow starts to find equilibrium. Give it some time to flow through my fingertips and transfer onto the screen, in a controlled release of creative energy.
A reminder that I shouldn’t stay away for too long.
Mix, flood, wash
Swipe, blot, scratch
Too much water, muddy
Too much color, sloppy
Too much detail, cluttered
Swipe, blot, scratch
Imperfection is expected
Tense aggression in the heat of frustration. What to do? My body can’t take this explosion of anger, I’ve got to have a physical outlet. Stupid Barbie, why don’t you do what I want? I hate you. Bite, clench hard. Quickly take a look. It’s all bent. Why did I do that? Now she’s ruined.
She still lives in a large plastic bin of forgotten toys in a basement, frozen smile, frizzy hair, and deformed hand.
School bus. Meekness puts me on the radar, makes me a target.
Get out of my space, get away from me…
Through my geeky spectacles, I’m seeing red. I wish I wasn’t alone on this bus, I wish I had a forcefield of friends to protect me. Body recoils, hotly tense. I hate you. I want your ugly, mocking smile to go away. My fist jumps out like a snake from the bushes, and connects with a hollow thunk. The bully facade crumbles to give a glimpse of his true face: a confused pre-teen boy who desperately needs to be cool.
I escape from the school bus, and soon after I notice small rocks dancing at my feet. Turn around, and he and his friend are throwing their parents’ decorative landscaping pebbles at me. Very tough indeed. I speed-walk home, tail between my legs.
I’ve learned that “no” is a question of interpretation. “Leave me alone” communicates an invitation for more undesired attention. My pathetic defenses have been exhausted. There’s a key to surviving here that I just don’t have. Why don’t I have it; how do I get out of this?
In class. Day after day, explicit sinister whispers chip away at me. I wish I could take my skin off and disappear. One after another, ugly comments meant to do what? Wear me down, violate my comfort; I’m tired of it. What did I do to deserve it? Tension, heart is boiling again. Stop fucking with me. I didn’t ask for this.
Teacher leaves room, and I can liberate the Me that lives inside, vibrant and angry and electric. The current extends out from my hand, slices around to meet his face. Jaw wobble, sharp intake of air, now I’m tingling. I plaster on a smile, eyes forward, like a good little scholarly robot-mannequin.
A student is going on the offensive; they’ve taken constructive criticism personally, which has led to aggression; at least, that’s what it feels like.
Needles in my skin, chest is hot. Voice and hands want to tremble.
I’ve given my professional opinion, and this poor sap feels the need to retaliate, and turn to the typical cheap ploy of ping-ponging their insecurity back onto me. I’m not having it. This time, I’ve got a full arsenal of words at my disposal. With firm professional efficacy, I defend my position and steer this person out of my space.
Same internal response.
Different course of action.
I broke down crying at my desk before class.
I shook my booty to reggaeton music.
I bit my nails.
I had private telephone conversations.
I did unladylike things.
Those shining moments were captured, in addition to my horrific first forays into teaching: kids scribbling on the walls, scooting around the classroom, slinging various objects, and stupefied Me in the eye of the pandemonium, pulling my hair out.
Sunday morning. Fall is here, and she’s brought the throat tickle. Time for my standby home remedy:
Equal parts honey and freshly minced ginger root.
Add about 1 tablespoon of the mixture to mug.
Stir in boiling water.
The first sip of my sweet, pleasantly spicy tea soothes my throat and brings me back in time. Saenggangcha, ginger tea in Korean. The winters in Seoul were cold and windy, and it felt so comforting to settle into a warm cafe and order a mug of ginger tea. I’d write or draw, sip, meditate. The earthy, pungent ginger punched into my nose while the honey made the whole go down nice and smoothly… There were little chunks of ginger sitting at the bottom, and I crunched them gladly. Warming, soothing, delicious.